Berthold Goldschmidt

Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996) could well be a poster boy for one kind of composer in exile.  A rising superstar in Germany, his move to England certainly ensured his survival and opened up many opportunities.  However, he toiled as a composer, mostly in obscurity, for decades after his emigration.  By the late 1950’s he had stopped composing entirely, devoting himself instead to conducting, where he played a vital role in Mahler’s ascendancy in Great Britain.  Then around the age of 80, with the growing interest in “Entartete Musik” he had a kind of fourth career, as an increasingly venerated (and productive) figure, composing once again until his death at 93.


Goldschmidt was born in Hamburg in 1903.  He studied philosophy and art history, as well as composition (with Schreker) and conducting.  He served as Erich Kleiber’s assistant for the premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1925 and in that same year won the Mendelssohn prize for his Passacaglia for orchestra, Op.4, showing a fondness for traditional forms that would be evident throughout his life.  The success of this work was matched by his early chamber works and an overture to The Comedy of Errors titled Overture to a Comic Opera.  His work as a conductor continued with stints with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the State Opera in Berlin.  During this time he composed his first opera Der gewaltige Hahnre (The Great Cuckold) on a play by the Flemish writer Fernand Crommelynck which was premiered in 1932.  This was a genuine success, but with the rise of the Nazis, performances planned for the following year were cancelled, and it was not performed again in German for a half-century.

In 1935 Goldschmidt emigrated to England, leaving behind many scores that never have been located.  Although he enjoyed some initial successes—his ballet Chronica was performed in 1938 and his opera Beatrice Cenci won a prize in the Art’s Council Festival of Britain in 1951—the composer did not find an audience for his music.  During this time he began what was to be a more immediately fruitful career as a conductor (notable moments included a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth in Glyndeborne in 1947).  He also played an important role in programming music for BBC’s European service broadcasts to Germany, a kind of anti-propaganda featuring the works of Mahler, Mendelssohn and many other composers banned by the Nazis.  He continued to compose sporadically, but after the completion of Mediterranean Songs in 1958 Goldschmidt stopped writing music for more than 25 years.  It was during this period that he played a pivotal role in Derek Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, premiering both the first and second versions after 1964.

After all these “careers” Goldschmidt had a resurrection as improbable as it was welcome and productive.  Starting in the early 1980’s he began composing again with a Clarinet Quartet.  A group of conductors, including Simon Rattle, Charles Dutoit and Yakov Kreizberg began to propagate his work, which was recorded by London and Decca, and the composer enjoyed what has been referred to as an “Indian Summer” as a highly respected figure.  His final work, the Deux Nocturnes, was composed shortly before his death at the age of 93.


Berthold Goldschmidt came out of an approach that sought to use the inherited tradition in powerful and imaginative ways without making an obvious break with it.  This can be heard from the very beginning of his prizewinning Passacaglia.  Its angular theme, serving both a thematic and a structural role in the variations format, is treated in various ways, ranging from a kind of despair to Beethovenian grandeur and from there to ephemeral modernist abstraction.  Goldschmidt was devoted to the music of Bach, and many of his works, from the start of his career to the finish, feature the great forms of the baroque, including canon, suite, and variation set.  He had a particular fondness for the chaconne/passacaglia principle and was quite successful with it in numerous works. With these forms the composer could avoid questions of long-range harmonic development, because by its very nature the chaconne form eschews modulation, but rather requires the composer to create dramatic effects without harmonic movement.  For this reason there are aspects of wit and shimmer in his early Passacaglia that have their analogue in the overture to The Comedy of Errors composed in 1925.  The closest American counterparts to this style are figures like Ruggles and Ives.  It is somewhat ironic that the Passacaglia won something called the “Mendelssohn Prize,” since the Comedy of Errors Overture is work of Mendelssohnian wit and charm.

As a musician in the Weimar Republic, Goldschmidt had opportunities to engage in opera in many ways: as a spectator, a repetiteur, a conductor and eventually as a composer.  His first opera was a bold choice; Crommelynck’s play The Magnificent Cuckold begins as something like a farce and becomes an Othello-like tragedy of obsession and violence.  Some have argued that it was a thickly veiled critique of the ascendant Nazis.  Like other successful composers of the time Berg, Bartók, Shostakovich and Janáček, Goldschmidt was able to create an edgy new operatic vocabulary while hewing to the traditions his audience knew and understood. 

Shortly after his arrival in England in 1935 Goldschmidt had a success with a ballet called Chronica, which had been commissioned by the Ballet Jooss.  Arranged for two pianos, and orchestrated more than twenty years later, its seven movements veer from tragedy to satire, from a powerful Passacaglia in a prison yard, to a parodic military march.  Particularly effective is an exquisite “Canone,” a kind of updated reflection on bel canto style inflected by, but not overtaken by, sardonic dissonance.  To some extent this describes the stylistic world of his second opera Beatrice Cenci after Shelley’s poem composed 1949-50.

His works written between 1982 and his death in 1996 reveal both a continuity with his stylistic preferences and several new directions.  Michael Struck, writing in the New Grove article about the composer suggests that these works “focus on the very problem of temporal disjunction, of being out of step with the times, that characterizes his work and his career as a whole.”  Some of these compositions like the nostalgic “Rondeau 'Rue du Rocher’” do have a retrospective cast, although we can also hear such “retrospective” moments in the Op.4 Passacaglia written in 1925.  Despite what a work like the Rondeau might or might not allude to, it has a depth of texture and a richness of variety that is impressive, especially in a 92-year-old composer.

Goldshmidt As Writer

Berthold Goldschmidt was also a significant personality whose writing, including memoirs and recollections, are some of the most valuable records of German musical life between the wars.  His small article on meeting one of his heroes, Ferrucio Busoni, is memorable for its understated style and wealth of detail on everything from the weather (“grey, cold morning”) to Busoni’s appearance (“wearing a gray overcoat and smoking a cigarette.  He was hatless, and I was fascinated by the 'artistic’ look of his silvery hair and the fine features of his face.”).  Many of his observations are collected in a volume published in German as: Berthold Goldschmidt - Komponist und Dirigent: ein Musiker-Leben zwischen Hamburg, Berlin und London (Berthold Goldschmidt Composer and Conductor: A Musical Life Between Hamburg, Berlin and London), published in 1994.